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China, April 9, 2001

Hainan - Does This Name Strike a Bell?

'Bout time we get a local's perspective

taking life in the slow lane
Calm on the surface
I love photos with big phalic rocks
Such photogenic rocks!
in serious need of proper landscaping
Not all of China is rich
Allah is great
Nature's Best
pretty from afar, empty up close
Glass and steel sprouts
I only wish WeeCheng was as pretty
Wearing black in the tropics?
and ya wonder why I went Chinese

Hainan - Paradise Island in the south of China

by WeeCheng Tan

Over 20 American airmen are now held on Hainan Island, a Chinese island described by western newswires as supposedly "heavily militarized". To me, Hainan is a magical land. This was where my father was born before being brought to Singapore at the age of two, ad also where my maternal grandparents came from before moving to Southeast Asia.

I grew up with the sweet song-like sounds of the Hainanese dialect, one of the smallest regional groups of overseas Chinese. Linguists say the Hainanese dialect is a sub-dialect of Min, also known as Hokkien or Fujianese, spoken in Taiwan and the province of Fujian - of course, the tongue that the more pro-independent minded Taiwanese and ignorant western media called the "Taiwanese language".

Of course, we free-willed Hainanese say this is nonsense, we speak the Hainanese and no other tongues are quite as unique as ours... The neighboring Cantonese would just shake their heads - they say, "Nine out of ten Hainanese is mad and the last is simply crazy!"

Hainan - this is China's southernmost province - 6 million people live here and another 2 million members of the diaspora live worldwide. Hainan has always been China's equivalent of Hawaii. This is the island of endless deserted beaches and tropical jungle and forests of wild coconut trees, palm trees.

Although not exactly known as a gastronomical paradise, Hainanese have created the national dish of Singapore, the Hainanese Chicken Rice. Apart from Han Chinese who first came to Hainan more than a thousand years ago, Hainan is also home to the Miao and Li ethnic groups, both of whom speak languages very close to the Thai.

In the south of the island is the beach resort of Sanya, where vacationing Chinese gawk at the stone carved monument "Tianya Haijiao", meaning Edge of the World. Indeed this is the southern edge of the Chinese empire, that is, if you exclude the Spartly Islands claimed by the Chinese Government. Further inland are a group of mountains crowned by a group of five peaks, known as Wuzhishan, or Mountains of the Five Fingers (of Buddha) - which has become one of the symbols of the island.

The Chinese first settled Hainan during the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago but the first 1000 years of Chinese rule was one of bored colonial garrisons, intrepid borderland trader-farmers and occasionally hostile native tribes. The first great wave of Han settlers came during the Song Dynasty, settling in the northeastern coast, pushing the native Li tribe inland.

Even then, Hainan has always been regarded as a frontier land, where the emperors (and later, the communists) exiled the rebellious and the seditious. Great poets and politicians - including the famous Song Dynasty poet, Su Dong Po, was exiled here after offending higher authorities - were exiled to this wild island where they set up schools among the local peasants, thus bestowing on this island a literary heritage and scholarly tradition normally not associated with borderlands.

The next great wave of settlers came during the Ming Dynasty, and their presence provoked the rebellion of the Li tribes. The Imperial Army brought in the Miao tribe, better known in Chinese movies as voodoo practitioners, from the Mainland to crush the rebellion and the colourful Miao thus settled in Hainan as well. It was also during this period that my ancestors arrived from the North, and they settled in the village of Tai Family (Taijiachun) in the poor remote county of Wenchang. Family legends say that the village was deserted when the settlers arrived... could they have perished in a round of ethnic cleansing, or became victims of some occult local magic?

Within 200 years, the family prospered with an exemplary act of an ancestor. This chap, adventurous and nomadic, became a sailor in the inland waters of the Jiangnan (southern China), saved Qing Emperor Daoguan when the Son of Heaven was traveling incognito and met with an accident on a boat. The hero was made a knight and given wondrous fortune. The honours bestowed were so great that the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi was obliged to kowtow him when he passed through Canton on the way to Hainan. He built a huge mansion in Wenchang, acquired the time-honoured traditions of keeping numerous concubines, each of whom had to serve him in the evenings when he signaled his wishes through bells tied from their bedroom to his.

Another ancestor was less mentioned by the family. A no less nomadic soul, he set off for Nanyang, the proverbial South Seas, only to disappear without a trace. I often wonder what happened to him. Could he have drowned in the rough South China Sea, or killed in a tavern riot in Bangkok, or perhaps stranded in a remote Borneo village too poor to return to the Hometown?

The Qing golden age did not last long. Foreign invasions raged as the Empire's fortunes faded. Heroes arose in troubled times. Here in Wenchang, not far from where my ancestors once lived, the Song sisters were born at the turn of the last century. The eldest married into then China's richest and most ennobled family, the Kangs (also descendents of Confucius), the middle married China's foremost revolutionary, Sun Yatsen, and the youngest married Chiang Kai-Shek, Kuomintang leader who later fled to another of China's island province, Taiwan. When the Japanese invaded in the late 1930's, they found the island infested with communists and preceded a bitter pacification campaign, killing 1/3 of the island's male inhabitants. It was during this traumatic period that my father's family fled to Singapore.

When the war was over, the island embraced communism with a vengeance thus giving rise to the famous Mao-era ballet piece, the Female Red Guards of Hainan. This, however, did not bring prosperity to Hainan. Hainan by the 1970s had turned into a backwater. This was reversed when China opened its doors in 1980's.

Hainan was declared a Special Economic Zone and a province. The capital, Haikou, previously a sleepy run down town, now packed with foreign investors, had turned into a mini-Manhattan. The tropical land of exiles is now being marketed as China's answer to Hawaii. Sun seeking mainlanders flood the island for the beach and fun, while Sichuanese and Russian prostitutes turn parts of Haikou into mini-Bangkok.

What does the future hold for this land? The events of recent days have suddenly placed this island onto world map. The world watches while the incumbent superpower and an emerging one faces each other on this island. The standoff is beginning to look prolonged, but to the ancient tudisheng - territorial gods the local Chinese believe to be the guardians of this land - this is but a mere episode in the island's history.

Wee-Cheng Tan, Singaporean by spirit & nationality - Londoner by location - citizen of the World

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 11 April, 2001

Hainan Island

by Tom Mitchell

Hainan enjoys the dubious meteorological distinction of having been hit by at least one typhoon a year for the past 50 years. But for the past 11 days, this tropical-island province has been at the eye of a rather different type of storm.

The world has been watching Hainan intensely since a United States spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter and subsequently landed at a PLA airfield at Lingshui, on the province's southern coast.

The 24 crew members of the US Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft have been held for most of the past 11 days in the centre of Haikou, the provincial capital, at the Southern Air Force No1 Guesthouse since dubbed by journalists as The Haikou Hilton. Last night, it appeared they would be released soon.

The aircrew 21 men and three women is probably one of the few groups of people ever ransomed for an apology, which the Chinese Government said was ''crucial'' if its seemingly cursed relationship with the US is to return to an even keel.

Meanwhile, the PLA Navy and Hainan's fishing fleet accompanied by sister vessels from six provinces and regions, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guangdong province is combing the seas south of Hainan in an increasingly desperate search for Wang Wei, the pilot missing since his F-8 jet plunged into the sea after the collision.

Hainan probably never expected so much fuss on the occasion of its 13th birthday, which (appropriately enough) falls tomorrow Friday the 13th. Previously administered as a part of Guangdong, Hainan was established as a province in its own right and also a Special Economic Zone on April 13, 1988.

Like most soon-to-be teenagers, Hainan is troubled and, for its parents in Beijing, difficult to manage. Indeed, Hainan has been a problem child from the start.

It was the late Deng Xiaoping's idea to elevate Hainan's administrative status and give it a raft of special economic privileges, such as the right to import certain goods duty free. But like most spoiled children given an inch, Hainan helped itself to a mile.

Fortunes were made as Hainan transformed itself into a black-market wholesale centre, smuggling its duty-free imports cars in particular to provinces on the mainland at huge markups.

When the central Government finally put a stop to the scam, it did not take long for Hainan to get into trouble again. Money poured into the province's property sector. Over a 10-year period, more than 62.3 billion yuan (about HK$58.6 billion) was invested in Hainan's property market. About half of this amount originated from outside Hainan, and Hong Kong developers were among the biggest investors.

But the party was ended by a central-government austerity campaign started in June 1993 by then Vice-Premier and central bank Governor Zhu Rongji, as inflation soared to post-revolution highs.

Hainan's economy never recovered. By the late 1990s, seven million square metres of housing lay empty accounting for 10 per cent of all vacant residential property in China and construction of another 11.35 million square metres was stopped in its tracks. The situation was so bad that in July 1999, the State Council approved a plan specifically designed to help Hainan dispose of its housing stock.

Even today, the consequences of this misadventure are readily apparent. Haikou is littered with the concrete shells of abandoned commercial- and residential-property projects. A quick walk around the hotel where US diplomats and the journalists assigned to hound them are holed up this week reveals about 15 concrete shells.

But at least the abandoned projects are not entirely useless. One concrete shell, situated adjacent to a Southern Air Force compound where the US aircrew might have been held initially, provided reporters with an excellent bird's-eye view into the heavily guarded installation.

According to one estimate, developers' losses in Hainan's property market were thought to be as high as 39 billion yuan a fiasco, in other words, on a par with the January 1999 bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation (Gitic). Gitic, which was closed in January 1999 with debts of about 39 billion yuan, is China's largest-ever bankruptcy case.

Not surprisingly, Hainan's financial institutions were neck deep in the property bubble. At one point, it was estimated that 70 per cent of all provincial bank lending was unrecoverable due to borrowers' exposure to the collapsed property market.

Indeed, the first bank failure in post-revolution China occurred in Hainan six months before Gitic's bankruptcy.

Hainan Development Bank, established by five Hainan-based international trust and investment corporations (Itics), was closed in June 1998, with local officials blaming the closure on the bank's overexposure to the local property market.

Hainan Itics were also among the first to wobble after Gitic's high-profile bankruptcy. In the most recent development, in October the Hainan International Trust and Investment Corp (Hitic) failed to make a 238 million yen (about HK$14.9 million) coupon payment to bondholders in Japan. Hitic's creditors subsequently declared the 14 billion yen bond, which was supposed to be repaid over a seven-year period, to be in default.

With the only real engine of the provincial economy in the early 1990s, the property market, stalled for almost eight years and the province's financial sector still reeling from the experience, Hainan is one of those strange places in China that claims to be growing at an impressive rate (averaging 8.6 per cent over the past five years), even though there is no readily identifiable economic activity.

So what is the invisible economic force that stepped into the void left by the collapse of Hainan's property sector? The official answer is ''tourism''. The Government says official earnings from tourism account for about 20 per cent of the province's gross domestic product.

''As is known to all, Hainan is an island province of tourist destination, where people are accustomed to a life of peace and harmony,'' says Hainan Foreign Affairs Office director Chen Ci. ''The frequent US military reconnaissance flights around Hainan Island, which resulted in the collision, have seriously disturbed the normal life of Hainan people and brought negative impact on tourism ... We welcome American tourists to Hainan for holiday-making, but not the spy planes.''

But tourism, many observers say, is a euphemism for prostitution. ''It is the flesh trade that keeps this place going,'' says one long-term resident. ''The economy is soft ... [and] Haikou has nothing much to offer as a tourist attraction Sanya maybe,'' he adds, in a reference to the resort city on Hainan's southern coast, close to where the spy plane landed. ''So what do you think all the businessmen come here for?''

Or as a manager at one popular Haikou hotel puts it: ''A lot of men come here for golfing weekends but never use their clubs. Men go to bars and expect to be able to return to their room with four women.''

The long-term resident adds: ''This is something that the local authorities are very well aware of. Only on this island would the Public Security Bureau close one eye.''

He notes you can count on one hand the number of anti-vice sweeps launched in Haikou in a given year one on National Day and a few others when the wind from Beijing blows hard enough. Standard practice, he says, is to tip off the hotels and raid a few nightclubs.

Indeed, hang out in any Haikou hotel something overseas and Hong Kong journalists have spent a lot of time doing since the latest Sino-US crisis began on April 1 and you will soon notice a steady stream of beautiful young women in too-short skirts and too-high heels walking to the lifts, and then walking back out the front door an hour later.

Many hotels disconnect their room-to-room dialling service at night to keep guests from being disturbed by not-so-secret admirers. Hainan, in short, is a paradise for dirty old men.

Watching a tipsy, overweight businessman and a woman decades younger than him thread their way through a pack of about 125 journalists covering a major international incident is slightly amusing.

But it is mostly pathetic and for the young women who flock to Hainan from all over China because prostitution is the only alternative to a life of drudgery a tragic indictment of how unevenly the benefits arising from China's economic reforms have been spread. Hainan is in desperate need of firmer foundations.

Tom Mitchell is the Post's Guangzhou correspondent.

China, August 7, 2000

A Private Moment With Jingmei

A few pretty pictures and plenty of fun comments This week, Jingmei and I are enjoying Shanghai, and if you don't mind, its a private affair. Enjoy these China photos, and I'll see ya next week. Beijing Shut-up Dave! A happy Jingmei Xi'an Mom tackles Xi'an's city walls Yes, hot...

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China, July 31, 2000

The Real Value of Yangshu

A kayak beats a tour boat any day Odd, no bicycle in between At least the runway is paved Nice view from his desk Don't rock the boat! Into a woman-driven taxi (an odd sight for me) we jumped, showing our tickets and making fast revving engine noises in a...

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China, July 24, 2000

Looking Up While Floating Down the Yangzi

In eight years its gonna be a scuba tour of the Three Gorges Getting a tow upstream Beautiful, eh? Ma and I are now in Wuhan, the terminus of our Three Gorges boat ride from Chongqing, and in need of a neck massage. No, the neck aches are not from...

China, July 17, 2000

Sweating in Xi'an With Ma

Two thousand years after Qin Shi Huang a kite calmed the Chinese Ma and I hotpot An archer, still at attention A general in full splendor The last time I saw my folks was the last time I was in the USA; Christmas 1998. I'm a good son though, for...

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China, July 3, 2000

You Said, 'Don't Worry About It,' So I Didn't.

I really should've fallen for a French girl! Yes, I was in the doghouse I was singing the Blues too She wants to be 'protected' Japs have prenuptials ready All smiles by Wednesday The logic was simple but the argument was not. Essentially, I loaned Jingmei a chunk of money...

China, June 2, 2000

This Duck Ain't Quacking

I bet Daffy would flip a lid over this dish! The crabs are still kicking! When I was a kid, I always loved to watch Daffy Duck get into and out of all kinds of trouble as he wandered through his cartoon world. I was constantly amazed at how his...

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China, May 29, 2000

Acceptance Ain't Easy for Chinese

It ain't easy being laowai, even in Beijing Say 'Hello' to men's dream Olga (right) would love Iowa How could I resist? My blood boils too Racing to ignorance Fries or friendship with that? Intelligentsia think ahead What would Harry say? In the dark, no one knows When I was...

China, May 27, 2000

Beijing's Metro Ain't All That

I wish the Beijing Metro went everywhere the map says it does. All aboard the Bland Express The scene at the front door Yesterday, tired of bicycling around Beijing on the days that I ride in with Jingmei, I decided to take the Metro across town instead. As you can...

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China, May 25, 2000

Nuttin Like a Sanlitun Cafe!

I wish more cities had a Sanlutin Sister and brother, chilling Brother going for the headlock Yes, the nose push! The Grand Finale: Hair Pull! With a good yank to win! Beijing's answer to Moscow's Arbat, Sanlitun is a small street with cheap designer knock-offs for sale on one side,...

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China, May 22, 2000

You Try to Suntan in Beijing!

Too many shades of ass-white in Asia if you ask me. In a shirt on a sunny day Jingsong drinks in the shade I'd rather tan in Thailand. Today, in one of the rare, smog-free days of a Beijing spring, I am outside and semi-nude. No, its not an attempt...

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With Pliers and a Foot on My Forehead

I love foreigner privileges in China, especially in healthcare. He no like hospital too Not today, Mr. Candyman Too much ice cream & fruit At least my smile is still there There I was, lying naked in bed as I stared at the ceiling lost in thought. It was morning...

China, May 21, 2000

He Needs Meat

I want a T-bone steak, and make it rare! No more rat meat on a stick! Mongolians ate horses too! I'm not happy with noodles! Once upon a time, long, long ago, in land far, far away, there was a vegetarian. A man who refrained from all meat, poultry, pork,...

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China, May 18, 2000

Russians Love Yabaolu

Need a vodka break in China? Head to YabaoLu! Bargaining in Russian too! Bicycle or truck delivery The first time I heard about the YabaoLu section of Beijing, I was still in Russia. It was on a train from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk, chatting with a shuttle trader>, who would travel...

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China, May 15, 2000

Nothing Like a Good Haircut

Smile as they give that intense scalp massage before your Chinese haircut Getting the scalp scrub This is the swank street-cut And the low-budget option Today it was time. Time for me to take my shaggy head in for my monthly haircut. Actually, I've had more fun in the last...

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Making Room For The New China

Ooops, was that your house? Well scoots over, China has to change somewhere Zipping by the debris Working hard mixing cement Building the future of Beijing Today, after driving downtown with Jingmei to her work, I set off on one of my all-day random bike rides through Beijing. Taking a...

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China, May 14, 2000

You Too Can Have Fun on China's Parks

It's Ming Dynasty meets Disney at the fun parks of China! The part of the Wall I like Only tourist-free spots for me Whatcha shooting there, boy? Did they pay to do this? Shopping at the front gate A little humor gone too far Bumper-Boats in Dragon Lake Caution: Sexy...

China, May 8, 2000

Gimme da Damn Cake!

Be sure to have a cake-buying backup plan in Beijing Worth a cake any day! Gimme da Damn Cake! Yes, it was tasty too! Last night I decided to do something nice for Jingmei. Now it wasn't just some random act of kindness that I'm known for, this was for...

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China, May 7, 2000

Where Will All These Noodles End?

Ain't no rice in Beijing, just way too many noodles Now that's handmade noodles! Note that he's making linguini Holly and Ren like the noodles See, noodles are the best! You think I'm eating a lot of rice here? I know you've heard the 'all the rice in China' line...

China, May 5, 2000

What Are You in the Market For?

Would you pass the yak penis and herbs, please? Kinck-knack heaven! Chirp! Chirp! With Jingmei, no yak needed! Can you say BIZARRE? Holly Krambeck Beijing City Edition At the Fuchengmen 'Flower and Bird' Market, the name is just the tip of the iceberg. When you get there, you see the...

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China, May 3, 2000

Watch Your Stuff, Theft is Rampant!

Mags disappear with ease in Beijing Theft makes Jingmei mad Swiping the neighborhood! Two days ago, Jingmei, and I went to the post office to mail a package to my friend in Shanghai. As we dealt with the usual bureaucratic bullshit of using the China-approved box, label, and mailing form...

China, May 1, 2000

Bowling Past May Day

Its time to pull out that Bowling League shirt! Taking a rest from work Happiness: Beijing Cafe living Yours truly in action JJ praying for a strike Its May Day! Yes, like Russia and most of Europe, China celebrates the first of May as an official end of winter and...

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China, April 24, 2000

Making Jiaozi with Mom

Of course Ayi's food tasted great! All mom's cook perfectly! Ayi never told me the recipe The secret squish to seal jiaozi It takes two to Tango Happiness: jiaozi and Yangjing It’s a customary step in all relationships, and as much as you stress and worry about it, the event...

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China, April 17, 2000

Scenes from the Neighborhood

You want photos? I'll give you photos! Nice and cheap! Watch out, I am about to make you sick, because I am about to tell you that I am so happy these days in China that I am finding it hard to write about anything amazing or extraordinary. This time...

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China, April 10, 2000

Getting Rid of the Gobi

The Mongolians invade again, this time with the Gobi! I mop, Jingmei washes Yes kids, a laowai on a bicycle I commute for lunch It's early in the afternoon and I am already addicted to the trashy Hong Kong movies on Star TV. I promised myself that this wouldn't happen,...

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China, April 3, 2000

Bouncing Back to Beijing

Ever follow your heart to the end of the Earth? I'm not in Kansas any more! Someone say "way too cute?" Jingmei relaxed I am on yet another train, crossing yet another plain. I've watched the scene slowly change from rice patties and banana groves to wheat fields and cherry...

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